A ‘Super Grand’ flash mob set to take over Philly art museum steps

The Fringe Festival is now afoot in Philadelphia. Over the next three weekends, almost 200 pieces of theater, dance, music, and comedy will be presented.

One of them is will be on the steps of the Museum of Art, where 175 dancers — all of them non-professional volunteers — will perform a choreographed routine.

Choreographer Sylvain Émard started staging large-scale dances in public places in 2009 in his hometown of Montreal. He was inspired by flash mob dancing where seemingly random people suddenly come together to dance in unison.

“You walk in the park and see people dance together. I wanted to keep that quality — to discover people in a public space dancing together,” he said. “Of course, it’s all staged, but I want to keep together as much as possible that spirit.”

For the three months, nearly 200 people from the Philadelphia region have met weekly to rehearse Émard’s 30-minute routine, “Le Super Grand Continental.” Émard was present for only a handful of the sessions; most were run by locally hired assistants.

Rehearsal assistant Sanchel Brown leads a group warmup during rehearsal for "Le Super Grand Continental," which will be performed by 175 volunteer dancers at the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the Fringe Festival.
Rehearsal assistant Sanchel Brown leads a group warmup during rehearsal for “Le Super Grand Continental,” which will be performed by 175 volunteers on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the Fringe Festival. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Le Super Grand Continental” will be performed three times this weekend, twice on Saturday and once on Sunday. It’s not the first time. A different version of the dance was at the Fringe Festival in 2012. Some who danced six years ago signed up again for this run.

All kinds of people are involved: Some are dressed in workout clothes; some in cargo shorts; and some women donned dresses. One woman wore a hijab, another danced in a thick African necklace. Some are overweight with a brow furrowed in concentration; others have a lithe bounce in the heels and a little jazz in their hands.

“It’s like a sculpture of humanity,” said Virginia Hedges of Mt. Holly, New Jersey. “You’ll see a wave of movement start at the edge, then a drop on the floor with no movement. Then a burst of movement. So it’s slow, fast, high, low. It’s the sea of humanity rippling.”

Virginia Hedges (third from left) and other volunteer dancers rehearse for their perfomance of "Le Grand Super Continental" on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Virginia Hedges (third from left) and other volunteer dancers rehearse for their performance of “Le Grand Super Continental” on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hedges came back, in part, because of the camaraderie of the project. The dedication – you can be cut if you skip rehearsal – forms bonds between the dancers.

“It’s corny because it’s true,” said Hedges, remembering the high of the performance in 2012. “The rest of September is, like, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’ ”

“It’s so energizing. Great exercise, great relationships. Positive, positive, positive,” said Fran Bartlett of Ardmore. “I would come and do this type of dancing once a week, and I’d pay for it, instead of doing it for free.”

On my way out of a rehearsal, I was told by another person — who described himself as a 60-year-old man who’d never danced before — that this is a “shortcut to joy.”

The dance will be performed this weekend, rain or shine.

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